REVIEW: ‘The Toll,’ compelling yet characterless, brings trilogy to an end

Promotional artwork for ‘The Toll’ courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

After nearly three years, the Arc of the Scythe by Neal Shusterman has been completed with the release of the  final novel, The Toll, on November 5th of this year. 

The Arc of the Scythe series takes place in a society where almost all death has been conquered. People can only die by fire and in space or by Scythes. Scythes glean — or kill — people in order to maintain the population. The first novel established the world and the conflict of the narrative in a compelling manner and the second and third novels continue to escalate and develop the world. The novel is narrated primarily from the perspectives of Greyson Tolliver, Jerico Soberanis, Scythe Micheal Faraday, Lorain Barchok, Munira Atrushi, Citra Terranova, Rowan Damisch, Scythe Rand, and occasionally the Thunderhead. The Toll by Neal Shusterman subverts expectations as to how the series will end but is still enjoyable.

One element of the novel that worked very well was the structure. The novel is divided into five parts, and in the first two or three parts it was very chaotic, skipping across a three-year timeline and in the latter parts it stabilizes a little bit more, keeping a more linear timeline at the very end of the three years. The chaos helps to establish a tone of all that has changed since the last novel and also how the world is dealing with the consequences of the Thunderhead cutting off communication, Endura sinking, Scythe Goddard taking power of the North American Scythedom. Having the chaos taper off a bit at the end conveys the stability that the world is settling into. It takes a little bit of adjusting and it is a little hard to follow the timeline but after a few chapters it becomes easier to follow along and it becomes really easy to become immersed in the novel.

Shusterman is able to manage a very dry, dark humor throughout the novel which works very well with the dismal conflict. It adds a very human element to the novel which works really well because it juxtaposes the very inhuman society that has been established. Majority of the society relies heavily on an entity called the Thunderhead, which is an omniscient AI, which has influence over everything from climate to people’s body chemistry. They don’t fear death, the consequences to their actions are minimal, they don’t feel in the same way that our society does because of it. So having that humor threaded through the novel makes the society feel more real. The novel also deals with a lot of heavy topics like mortality, abuse of power, maintaining hope, and the humor adds a little bit of levity, which becomes much appreciated especially as the novel starts to build up to resolution.

Compared to the electrifying plot, the characters can fall short. The series starts out with Scythe Micheal Faraday taking on not one, but two apprentices, Citra and Rowan. When the Sycthedom finds out about this, they decide that he can keep both but the one who does not become a scythe must glean the other. As readers, we are supposed to root for Citra and Rowan to become a couple but they aren’t in contact for the majority of the trilogy. The entire first book is dedicated to their relationship and how it affects their apprenticeship but despite the fact that Shusterman writes their scenes together like they were never apart, the reality is that they were in fact separated for extended periods of time. The novel isn’t centered around their relationship, but it is still a very prominent part of the series. This book could have been the one in which they are able to connect more and deal with the new world together but again, they are separated. The relationships that they have with their mentors is far more substantial, but they don’t change much over the course of the series and in the third book they don’t even interact with their mentors too much. 

Like the previous books Shusterman uses multiple perspectives and there are several characters that were introduced in this novel which adds so much depth to the world Shusterman has created, but it can at times take away from character development, because every new character needs a chapter. In the novel it would be several chapters or even an entire part where the reader doesn’t even hear from a certain character, which is disappointing because the characters that Shusterman creates are so interesting and have so much potential. Characters like Scythe Curie, Scythe Goddard, and Jerico were so interesting but they weren’t given the time to be more fully developed. Even characters like Citra and Rowan, who were in the very first book, show growth in very minimal ways over the entire trilogy. There is so much that happens with the plot that more character development would have taken the series to even greater heights. Be that as it may, the intensity of the novel will keep fans of the series engaged, even if the characters that populate the action aren’t as engaging as they could be, generally devoid of a dynamic nature, generally unchanged from start to finish.

The novel also deals with a lot of heavy topics like mortality, abuse of power, maintaining hope, and the humor adds a little bit of levity, which becomes much appreciated especially as the novel starts to build up to resolution.

The series as a whole discusses the corruption of power in an incredibly meaningful way. Scythe Goddard’s rise to power and the movement that he inspires almost seems inevitable. Scythes are meant to be honorable. They don’t glean because they like to, they glean because they have to. But in their society scythes are so revered, that at some point the power would have lead to a corrupted faction emerging. The presence of scythes that are still honorable adds dimension to the series because it shows that even within corrupt organizations there can still be people who are still trying to improve things no matter how hopeless the situation might seem. 

In some regards, The Toll is an unexpected ending to the Arc of the Scythe. However, the novel maintains elements from the first and second books, both good and bad, that make the novel a satisfying and appropriate ending to the series. 

Mythreyi Namuduri is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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